Response to Intervention / Instruction (RTI)

Response to Intervention /

      Instruction (RTI)

Is It Mush or M.A.S.H.?


RTI Teacher






The following is an excerpt from the book, "Help, I Can't Read!" (available on this website).

This chapter covers a controversial federal policy: “Response to Intervention,” also called “Response to Instruction,” or simply RTI. It is my goal to provide some clarity and a sense of direction for classroom teachers and any others trying to help struggling readers succeed in learning to read.


What is RTI*?

RTI is a rapidly evolving concept that touches a wide range of students, teachers, and schools. Although the idea was conceived in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act legislation of 2004, the implications are far-reaching for regular and special education practitioners alike. RTI engages teachers and specialists in: (1) the selection of appropriate classroom reading instruction, (2) continuous monitoring of student learning, and (3) encouragement of the adaptation of instruction to meet the changing needs of all students. This makes the way for systemic educational reform.1

In simpler terms, Response to Intervention/Instruction means that educators:

  • Screen all students for reading ability.
  • Use the data to diagnose those who are struggling.
  • Supply research-based interventions at the point of need for strugglers.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the intervention.
  • Adjust interventions if the pace of improvement isn’t enough to allow the struggler to catch up with grade level expectations.
  • Refer students to a special education setting if a succession of interventions hasn’t provided enough improvement.


The Big Disconnect

RTI was officially birthed by the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004. Now—whether the federal government has the right to impose mandates on state governments, local education administrators, or classroom teachers—that is not an issue to be discussed in this book. The fact is: RTI is here, and it’s making life difficult for many people. While it was supposed to bring many positive changes, only a few models of RTI have been widely implemented, and they have caused problems. So, is it something we should oppose, or can we turn this whole thing around and use it to make a difference in the lives of our students who struggle with learning to read? And, can we do it without losing our family, our sanity, or our health? These are the questions that need to be answered before we choose either to go to battle or to quit. I believe we can make RTI work, and work well, but teachers are giving up to soon.

A recent article in NEA Today said that teachers are leaving the field of education at an unprecedented rate. Of those leaving, only 30 percent were retiring. The majority (56 percent) were leaving over job dissatisfaction. Teacher turnover runs very high, at 17 percent per year. One-third of new teachers quit after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five.2

In education, one thing remains constant; someone is constantly telling teachers that everything they’ve done in the past is wrong, and they need to adopt the latest and greatest methods or policies—or else. After a long career in teaching, I’ve seen the pendulum of academic thought swing back and forth many times. Experienced teachers have learned to wait. Whatever comes down will go around—and around—and around. We develop a “wait and see” mentality which from the outside may appear to be stubbornness (well, actually for some of us, it is stubbornness), but RTI is probably not going to go away, and it is my opinion that it shouldn’t. We just have to get it to work for us. If we collect data, analyze it, and use it to differentiate our instruction according to our students’ needs, it is much more likely we’ll get the materials and resources we need to do the job—in theory, at least.

Since the turn of this century, scientific research on learning disabilities has made giant steps toward actually helping many learning disabled students learn to read. But there is a huge disconnect between the researchers and the teachers. The reason is probably very simple. The researchers publish their amazing findings in educational journals and expect teachers to read those articles, decipher all the statistics and scientific terms, and then joyfully jump right into changing what they’ve been doing for years. As John Wayne once said, “Not hardly!”

Researchers need to get out of their ivory towers and see what today’s teachers are up against. We don’t have extra time at the end of a long, exhausting day to struggle through scientific journals. We hardly have time for our families or our own personal health. And, we are a strong-willed lot, the captains of our little ships—but we’re not stupid. If someone would take the time and thought necessary to get the appropriate information out to the general public in a realistic manner, teachers would want to make the changes. Instead, the new policies are being shoved down unwilling throats, and the battles could get ugly.

It is the goal of this book to explain in simple terms what the new research shows (Chapter 2), and to give a simple framework to begin a successful RTI plan in your classroom (Chapters 3-14). I believe that if you will look into this and begin to make the recommended changes, you will help your struggling readers improve their reading. The facts are out there—and could revolutionize how we teach.

Every man has the right to be wrong in his opinions,

but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.

Bernard Baruch

Baruch: My Own Story (1996)

The History of RTI

Before we discuss the current federal policies and how they affect our classrooms, we need to understand the history of federal policy in relation to the education of struggling readers. So, just where did RTI come from?

If you were a struggling reader back in the sixties, you were out of luck. There was little or no help given. You were told you were unmotivated, or unintelligent; and you’d better work harder. There was an obvious problem with this diagnosis. Many of those struggling readers seemed to be highly intelligent in other areas, and were working very hard to learn to read with little success, while other students of more limited intelligence were succeeding.

Research came in that supported the fact that there was such a thing as a learning disability. Government officials came up with a definition that said more about what a learning disability was not rather than what it was, but there was general agreement that it was “unexpected underachievement.” Finally, legislation began to provide protection for people with a learning disability. Here are some of the landmark moments:

1970 – Education of the Handicapped Act – designated “learning disability” (LD) as a disability in federal legislation.

1975 – Education for All Handicapped Children Act – recognized “specific learning disability” as a category eligible for special education funding and services. This legislation was later renamed “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA).

1997 – Reauthorization of IDEA – emphasized that LD students must be allowed access to the same curriculum that all the other students were using.

2001 – Learning Disabilities Summit sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education – endorsed RTI as an approach in identifying specific learning disabilities

2004 – Reauthorization of IDEA 2004 – added two new concepts for accurately referring students for special education services:

  • “A local education agency may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures.” (This process was named RTI.)  As of August, 2006, IDEA regulations went on to clarify, “The State must permit the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures..”[iii]
  • Early Intervening Services (EIS) language was placed in a separate section of the law and focused on funding. This funding can now be used to support RTI.

Notice – the law doesn’t say school districts can’t use old methods for identifying learning disabled students; it says they have to permit RTI. (It also doesn’t define it as using a specific model for responding.) So, why don’t school districts just ignore the whole thing and continue doing what they’ve done for years? Simple—the old methods haven’t worked.

According to the 2007 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, we still have only one-third of our fourth grade students who are proficient or better readers (33%). And, 34% are at a basic level of proficiency, meaning they can barely function on grade level material. That leaves one third that don’t read well enough to function in regular fourth grade material. While this actually represents a slight improvement since 1991, it is still not acceptable. Something needs to change in the way we work with our struggling readers. I think most teachers realize this. That’s why there are several models for identifying learning disabled students that have been suggested and tried.

* Words found in "Glossary."

1 M. Lipson and K. Wixson, “New IRA Commission Will Address RTI Issues.” Reading Today. vol. 26, no. 1, (August/September 2008). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. 

2 C. Kopowski. “Why They Leave.” NEA Today. Volume 26, Number 7, (April 2008), 21.

3 U.S. Public Law IDEA Reauthorized 2004 Title 20 of Section 1414, subsection b (6) listed under “Specific Learning Disabilities – Additional Authority.”



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